Around 250 years ago a French writer by the name of Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a book entitled ‘Du Contract Social’ or ‘The Social Contract’ to us English speakers. Rousseau would become revered by French revolutionaries for the concepts he put forth in his writing, especially those mentioned in ‘The Social Contract’. After studying Rousseau however, one idea sticks to mind more than others and that would have to be his belief that men could be ‘forced to be free’.
At first, it seems laughable, an idea that could only be thought up by raving revolutionaries we witness in satire. It would be a challenge to find two words with greater juxtaposition than ‘forced’ and ‘freedom’. Look them up in the dictionary and forced will be described with words like imposed and against one’s will while freedom will be associated with the idea of acting as you wish, without control. Therefore, how can we ever say that you could force someone to be free, surely it is a complete contradiction? Not exactly.
Before delving into this, a quick (ish) philosophy lesson. Rousseau believed that for true freedom to be preserved, a community (this may be anything from a township to a nation) must be formed, to which everyone would surrender themselves and their freedoms entirely. Doing so ensures no-one is of superior power and nobody possesses power to oppose the will of the community. All within this society would form an assembly to act as the sovereign, the decisions of said sovereign would be formed by the ‘general will’, a consensus on which all (men) could agree would be beneficial for everyone as opposed to one’s own personal interests. Everyone must obey this will for all to be free, as true freedom only exists when we exist under laws that we have prescribed to ourselves. This is where the idea of being forced comes into play as those who find themselves at odds with the ‘general will’ must accept they are wrong and succumb to it or find that they will be forced to do so, through punishment and re-education.
While this may look like a lesson in totalitarianism 101, there is some logic to be found here. The ‘general will’ shall form the law of a society and it is expected of all to accept this will. Is this that far from contemporary society? If one breaks a law that the majority see as rational then they are punished and sent to ‘correctional facilities’ where they are taught the error of their ways and provided an education on how to be a better citizen in some cases. There are some parallels to be drawn and there is more to be said beyond the workings of Rousseau.
Indeed, it has been frequently argued throughout philosophical history by the likes of John Locke that the creation of civilised society provides us with greater freedom than if we existed in anarchy. While we may be free from the creation of laws to which we may be opposed, the fear of death or starvation constrains us to mere survival. The hindrances that anarchy provides on freedom would be hindered by the creation of a society and the laws that come with it. Therefore, it is so mad to argue that by forcing people to obey the law we, in fact, enhance freedom.
Admittedly the ideas of Rousseau have no place in modern society. Today we place too great an emphasis on the protection of minorities and the right to free speech, among other rights. While the ideas he put forth were democratic in a sense of popular rule, they were a form of democratic totalitarianism in which dissent from the majority could not be tolerated. That is not to say he has not raised valuable questions regarding the extent to which humans could ever be free. Are we most free without laws to constrain us, limited by only our personal ability to survive? Or when we are forced to be part of a society that forms laws we do not condone but provides our lives with security, with freedom from imminent death? That is a question I am certainly not qualified to answer.